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The Skunk Works

A few days ago, I discovered a skunk works in my organization. I am very pleased.

Don’t get the wrong idea. No specimen of mephitis mephitis has landed on the Palisades Hudson payroll; the firm’s equal opportunity policy only applies to homo sapiens. Our only nonhuman personnel is Broccoli, the southeast Asian box turtle I acquired as a pet for my first-grader. The first-grader later went off to college, then moved into an apartment in Manhattan. Broccoli, now about the size of a fireworks barge, today resides in a large tank in our headquarters’ reception area, to the amusement of delivery men and staffers’ children.

In business, a Skunk Works refers to a small part of an organization where innovative or secret projects are conducted with minimum bureaucracy and maximum mojo. The term actually belongs to the Lockheed Martin Corp., whose predecessor Lockheed Aircraft created the first such unit during World War II. Its first assignment was to give the Allies a jet fighter to match and surpass one that the Luftwaffe fielded in 1942. Lockheed’s hand-picked team put a bird in the air in 143 days, from start to finish. The “Skunk Works” moniker was derived from a fictitious Kentucky distillery that appeared in the Li’l Abner newspaper comic strip at the time.

It is easy to see why a critical defense contractor, approached with a high-priority and top-secret project in the middle of a world war, might assemble a team of ace engineers and mechanics and put them in an out-of-the-way location, with nothing else to do except what needed to be done. In a similar situation decades later, Steve Jobs is said to have assembled 20 Apple employees (he called them “pirates”) in a small office next to a gas station, some distance from the company’s main office in Silicon Valley. In the building that the pirates nicknamed “Texaco Towers,” they designed the Macintosh, and thus brought graphical, windows- and mouse-based computing to a mass audience.

A small financial advisory firm like ours - two dozen employees, spread among four cities - is not going to bring jet power to the military or a computing revolution to the world. We don’t have a big bureaucracy to circumvent. But there is still room, even in a business like ours, for someone to freelance a good idea or a creative approach, developing it before the boss - namely me - even realizes he needs it.

In this case, the Skunk Works consisted of a single person, who is going to help us bring chocolate to our clients with a little more pizzazz than usual.

Every year at this time, we order a few hundred 1-pound bars of delicious Belgian chocolate, stamped with our company’s logo. We send them to clients as a token of our appreciation for their business and their trust. I might have originally wanted to rotate the chocolate with other gifts, but it has become so popular that I am pretty much locked into the chocolate business. I even considered hedging the price of cocoa last spring, when political upheaval in Africa threatened this year’s crop.

It so happens that this year, our firm is marking its 20th anniversary, which became the theme of the letter I wrote to accompany the chocolate bars. Once I wrote the text, I handed it off to our marketing folks, who asked a young associate, Ashley Dandridge, to produce the letters for us.

Ashley studied graphic arts and communications in college. Though we did not initially hire her for her graphic talents, we have found many ways in which to exploit them - from developing better charts to include in our clients’ financial reports to designing the sign that bears our company name in our Atlanta office.

Ashley had already decided on her own that our 20th anniversary might deserve special recognition. Without being asked, she prepared a special anniversary letterhead that happened to fit perfectly with the message of my chocolate letter.

“I don’t mind if things like this get shot down,” Ashley wrote in an email to Melissa DiNapoli, our marketing manager. “Just contributing the idea so it’s out there.”

Ashley’s idea did not get shot down. We are using her stationery design. Much as I like the stationery, it was Ashley’s initiative and spirit that really brought a smile to my face.

As a manager, you want your people to feel free to offer new ideas, and to be confident enough not to mind if they get shot down. Of course, you can’t have them sitting at their desks doing only what they want to do, rather than what they need to do. No business could function that way, especially not one as small as ours. But you don’t want them to do only what they are told. That would be a waste of their talent, and ultimately a waste of opportunities for the enterprise. I spent an entire day last year training our managers on the subject of creativity and how to foster it.

Lockheed’s Skunk Works prided itself on having exactly what its military customers needed before those customers even realized they needed it. That’s what Ashley did last week. Her contribution is not a life-altering advance for our business, but it is a nice touch for our marketing, and a welcome sign that we’re doing something right in the way we manage our staff.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Anyone Can Achieve Wealth,” and Chapter 19, “Assisting Aging Parents.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s previous book Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55.

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